Today marked my first trip to The Counter in Santa Monica. The famed burger place I had only heard and read so much about. So how was it? It was good. It wasn’t great, it wasn’t bad, it wasn’t average – it was a solid “good.”
I would go back. Actually, I hope to return one day. Although not too soon. There are other burgers to try, y’know.
First impression: “That’s The Counter?!” To be honest, I was expecting more of a beach shack. Wood, bright interior, a local, worn in feel, lots of smiling and incredibly messy faces. I expected it to be facing the the Pacific. Nope. Wrong I would be for expecting those things. In fact, it was a modern looking establishment in what was effectively a strip mall. A Starbucks, nicer Italian restaurant, and other commercial establishments were attached – and they all shared a parking lot. Although to be fair, the Starbucks did appear to be one of the nicer Starbucks – the kind of Starbucks one might expect to find in Santa Monica. Back to The Counter. Its colors were silver, blue, white, and green. Painted skateboards were hung neatly in a row along the back wall. The bathrooms were single rooms with concrete floors and way too loud music – for a bathroom anyway. The music included more recent Top 40s and was nowhere near as upbeat as I’d hoped. C’mon, where were The Beach Boys singing “Surfin’ USA” and “California Girls?” Sublime would even do. Some Bob Marley. And “Kokomo.” Anyway, I digress. So we order from the long form of thousands and thousands of burger choices that no person could ever possibly complete in one lifetime and take a table. I ordered a beef patty, 1/3 pound, with horseradish cheddar (I don’t think I’d ever even heard of that before…), green onions, roasted garlic aioli (I was pretty sure they had that, and I was pretty sure it was going to find its way onto my burger.), and mixed lettuces. Cooked to medium, thank you (I used to be the biggest advocate of well done – it wasn’t until, oh, probably a year or so ago, that I discovered juicy, flavorful, disgustingly red medium.). My dining companion ordered a beef patty, grilled onions, roasted chiles, sharp provolone (admittedly I was impressed that they had this, too, for a burger), barbecue sauce, dill pickle chips, pepperoncinis, and honey glazed bacon cooked to medium. And we both ordered white buns. And the chili cheese fries. With onions. We opted out of the sour cream (I just wasn’t sure about that with everything else we were getting is all…).
First the chili cheese fries came out. They were quite an impressive sight to behold. Literally, they were covered in chili. I saw one or so fries peeking out; the cheese was not even visible. Very few, very finely chopped onions garnished the top. Large chunks of tomato were visible as well. That surprised me, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I was impressed, however, because chili does often have tomatoes, but you don’t often find tomatoes on chili cheese fries. I remain impressed. Now for the taste… complex, blended tastiness. The chili was good, the raw onions, of course, were good, but the cheese was even better. It was so stringy and gooey and melty. Glorious. The fries. Oh, the fries. They weren’t my favorite, but, as with many other things, I believe fry preference can be very personal. To me they tasted like they had been lightly battered, or dredged, but my dining companion thinks not. Either way, I’ve had better. They were just no McDonald’s, In-N-Out (they aren’t even my fave), PJ Clarke’s, Ford’s Filling Station, Fatburger, Y’Not Burger, homemade, or any others I’ve undoubtedly forgotten. I also found the chili slightly watery, but, again, disagreement. Hmm, I’m pretty sure we had lunch together… Anyway, good flavor to be sure, just not as thick as I prefer my chili when it’s on fries.
Now for the main event – the burgers. Right after we sat down I headed to the ladies’ room (Trust me, I am going somewhere with this.). En route, I saw some burgers that were getting ready to be served up. They amazed me. They were huge and had surplus amounts of melted cheese running down their sides. I’m sure our burgers were no less tasty, but they weren’t “amazingly” large either. To be fair, we got the smallest patty size available – a third pound. So those could have been 2/3 pounders or 1 pounders.
So – our burgers. They were impressive. I think I was most impressed by their presentation. They were rather pretty. I guess about as pretty as messy burgers can be. They seemed to somewhat match and somewhat supersede their environment. But enough about presentation. Sure, we may first eat with our eyes, but what really matters, at least to me, is taste. The patties were some of the better, if not best, patties we’ve had. Tender, juicy (almost most important), and flavorful. The buns. Ooo, the buns. Those could have been better. They looked and tasted like they’d been toasted…awhile ago, as the buns were actually cold. The cheese was melted perfectly on both burgers and the toppings were plentiful. The sauce, surprisingly to me, came on the side in a little plastic cup. So I spotted my roasted garlic aioli. I was a bit skeptical. It didn’t quite look like aioli. I tasted it, hoping. It tasted like Ranch dressing out of a packet. Not that anything is wrong with that in the right situation, but having ordered garlic aioli to go on my burger, that was not quite the right situation. I had my dining companion taste it. He agreed it first came off like Ranch, but continued that he felt it had a strong garlic finish. I disagreed. I tasted it again. I eventually went to tell one of guys at the counter (guys at the counter at The Counter – haha…) that I was not sure I got the aioli. He said, “Well, let me see it. I know what they look like.” A little confused at first, I agreed. He said with a smile, “That’s the roasted garlic aioli!” I retreated back to my table knowing that was like no aioli I had ever had before, and was questioning whether The Counter knows that aioli isn’t, in fact, Ranch dressing with a little garlic in it. Nonetheless, I sat back down and shmeared the off-white creamy stuff onto my buns and continued eating rather happily. The burger did merit and did receive a few food moans – good sign. It was tasty, and like I said – great patty. Which I think is rather hard to find. And that makes me rather sad. An otherwise great burger can be diminished to just a good burger due to an improperly cooked patty. Or Ranch dressing substituting as aioli.
The other burger. The other burger was very good. The BBQ sauce was great! I think rarely have I had better. Great balance of flavors. The bacon. The bacon was good, but not the best. I’m not gonna lie – I’m all about thick cut bacon now. Dude, Chili’s – good bacon! Anyway, needless to say, it wasn’t thick cut. Also, I wasn’t really able to detect the honey glaze. But that burger had so many things going on as it was, I’m not going to complain about that. The roasted chiles were very tasty and cooked well, but the grilled onions took the cake. I am a huge fan of grilled onions. Well, of onions in general. But these, I think, had to be some of the best. Sure, they were flooded in BBQ sauce, which I found to be unfortunate as I wanted to get just the pure flavor of the onions, but I tasted past the sauciness and found a surprising smoky flavor (beyond the bacon and BBQ sauce, trust me, that I think I misdiagnosed as smoky – a deep grilled flavor, almost char-grilled flavor.). Going against my love of grilled onions on burgers I decided against them as I thought to myself, “Well, I’ve already had grilled onions on burgers. I want something I don’t know the flavor of. Something new.” Their grilled onions would have fit that bill. The sharp provolone, sadly, did not come through that well. Provolone in general can be a bit milder than many other cheeses, even sharp provolone. This burger had so many other strong flavors, even the burger itself, that the cheese was up against very high odds. But that’s okay, it did lend a necessary cheesiness and gooey factor. And it didn’t take away from any other aspects of the burger.
Mmm, that patty though. That had to be my favorite part. No. Wait. No.
My favorite part. As we rounded 29th off of Ocean Park Ave. the scent of beautifully cooked beef patties on a grill wafted into the car and took ahold of us. I can honestly say, I think that was the best a burger has ever smelled to me coming out of a building. And that’s probably a very odd thing to rate, but it’s so true. Just that scent that could lure you in off the street. The Counter has the best so far. If you weren’t in the mood for a burger, they would change that very quickly. I wonder how far down the streets in every direction you can smell them. I wonder what their smell radius is. That made it just about worth it right there.
The Counter, as it has done many times before, will definitely get a spot on my best burgers list. If I ever make one. It is deserving for the taste, if not the ambiance (in my humble opinion) or the service (which wasn’t bad, but…).